Julia Rosenbaum reports that the artist Theodore Robinson, upon seeing several paintings by John Twatchtman of Yellowstone Park, lamented that it did not adequately represent the American landscape. It is said that for Robinson, what is needed in such painting, is to juxtapose natural or geologic time, from human or social time, as well as to exhibit the mark of human time over natural time.

For Robinson, features of the New England landscape seemed particularly iconic and emblematic of the region’s – if not the country’s – culture and history. He was particularly drawn to New England’s barns. While in Vermont he wrote glowingly of them: “We should paint them as in the Old World one paints cathedrals or castles. Weir has done this – Twatchtman as well.” The motif, in his opinion, not only characterized an American as opposed to a European identity but also stood out as a monument to the country’s past. Robinson drove this point home in a statement he made shortly before he died. He had just gone to see several paintings of Yellowstone Park that Twachtman had completed. Robinson was singularly unimpressed, especially with Twachtman’s subject matter: “it is a country,” he wrote, “I shouldn’t care for – it is not enough in time.” Against the West and geologic or natural time, Robinson juxtaposed the East and human or social time. The two halves of the country marked the extremes of a scale calibrated by human industriousness and achievement; it was the mark of human time over natural time and the degree of historical continuity that determined the quality or value of a landscape. From this perspective, New England and Vermont in particular scored high. The intimate connection of the region with the flow of human history gave it, in Robinson’s mind, the significance and authority to represent American landscape (Rosenbaum 2006, 100-1).

Rosenbaum, Julia. 2006. Visions of belonging: New England art and the making of American identity. Ithica and London: Cornell University Press.